Room for Misinterpretation in the Works of Mel Bochner

The son of a sign painter and friend of the thesaurus, pioneering conceptual artist Mel Bochner describes his working process as puzzling through a series of hypotheses. “My way of doing things is to follow my interests wherever they lead me,” he explains. “I don’t have a pre-formed theory about what my work is or should be. I work by making up hypotheses—‘What would happen if…’—and then working through the contradictions as they come up.” One of the many questions fueling his famously high/low works could, perhaps, be stated as: What would happen if language were used as an artistic medium? The generous selection of his prints, in a range of processes—including combined etchings and aquatints, mixed-media monoprints, handmade photographic prints, and silkscreens, available through Two Palms, offers a view of how the artist has gone about answering that question, one which he has been pursuing for decades.

Equally steeped in philosophical notions about the structure of language and its casual, real-world use, Bochner fills his compositions with words, phrases, and seemingly unending lists of synonyms. He pulls in viewers with an almost slapstick absurdity and lushly worked surfaces, only to give them pause by revealing the ideologies and subtexts hidden in everyday language. Roget’s Thesaurus sits alongside his paper, pigment, brushes, and canvases as one of his most essential tools. This is apparent in Silence (2009), one of a series of combined etchings and aquatints focused on a single word and its synonyms. The word “silence” tops a scrawled list, complete with offshoots and scratched-out mistakes, encompassing words like “SHUSH!” and “HUSH!,” phrases like “ZIP IT!” and “SHUT THE FUCK UP!,” and sounds like “SH!” This crazy pile-up of words quickly devolves into nonsense, heightened by the fact that they define a word meant to stop all chatter.

“KNOW WHAT I MEAN?” is the idiomatic question written boldly in blue across another of the artist’s prints, rendered as if to mimic the tossed-off way in which it is often asked. While the work may seem light and slangy, easy to glance at and move beyond, it reflects one of Bochner’s central concerns, which we, so reliant upon communication, share: the link between language and meaning. Do you, really, know what he means?

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